The Upside of Feeling Down
Over the past couple of decades, public imagination has been captured by the notion Of `happiness' in an unprecedented way. There is now a Journal of Happiness Studies, a burgeoning field of study known as `happiness economics`, and everyone from self-help gurus to sociological researchers to public policy makers is trying to understand what happiness is and how everyone can get more it. The main shows no sign of abating - during a three - month period this year, over one thousand books on the subject were released. In our frantic pursuit of good feelings, however, some researchers worry that we may have overlooked the flipside of the coin - sadness. By framing sadness as solely a negative condition, a fetter to free ourselves from, these scholars believe that we may be neglecting an important facet of the human experience.B
Much evidence suggests that sadness plays an important and constructive role in our lives.Firstly, in some very fundamental respects, humans perform better at a range of functions when they are feeling down. In a University of New South Wales study, Professor Joe Forgas discovered that people experiencing negative moods are less gullible, and less likely to make judgemental errors than their happy counterparts. He also found that sad people had better recall of past events and feelings, were better able to communicate their thoughts, and were less likely to judge someone based solely on their appearance. Why would this be so? Primarily, because moods are linked with our evolutionary needs -they effectively tell us how to process any information we receive. Forgas notes that a positive mood indicates comfort and familiarity, whereas a negative mood alerts the brain to be vigilant. As a result, he believes, sadness encourages a `more attentive and externally focused, information - processing style` whereas happiness prompts us to switch off, making us prone to deception. In other words, bliss is ignorance.C
In other contexts, sadness allows us to cope with traumatic occurrences and, ultimately,move on from them. Unlike other negative emotions such as anger or fear, which temporarily spike energy levels and impel the person experiencing them to act decisively, sadness drains energy. In doing so it draws the sufferer away from the activities of other people and encourages them to reflect on their feelings and the importance of what caused them. This process, known as grief, serves an important role in helping humans to adjust to loss and to integrate it into their lives. In an editorial in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet, deputy editor Dr Astrid James warned that psychiatrists are in danger of pathologising normal human experiences by prescribing anti - depressant pills instead of acknowledging the superior role of prolonged sadness in naturally rehabilitating sufferers.D
Aside from acting as a coping mechanism, sadness may also play a more proactive role in encouraging people to improve their lives. According to Jerome Wakefield, clinical social worker at New York University,`one of the functions of intense negative emotions is to stop our normal functioning, t. make us focus on something else for a while`. In this way, the memory of sadness - and of taking time out to be sad - imprints itself on our mind as a psychological deterrent for the future. One can see how, for example, young adults learn to become more guarded and less cavalier with everything from their money to personal relationships after suffering one agonising loss too many. Without the prodding of sadness upon our memory of these situations, we might endlessly repeat these follies with no reason to alter our behaviour.E
Finally, what of the notion that sadness is powerfully linked with great artistic expression? Some evidence suggests this is far from a cultural myth. A researcher from Harvard University, Modupe Akinola, experimented with the connection between depression and creativity. She asked depressed people to perform creative tasks and gave them feedback that was designed to reinforce their negative feelings. Akinola speculates that this feedback encouraged research participants to dwell on their negativity, and this unearthed hidden feelings and bolstered their negativity, and this uneartted hidden feelings and bolstered their creative output. Laura young , a researcher at Boston College, has found that adolescents or young adults who participate in arts programmes are more likely to experience sadness than their peers, a finding that is also true for older adult artists. Young emphasises, however, that painting and drama are not themselves catalysts for depression. Rather, she suggests, they are a chance for some people to vocalise their anger and can provide a therapeutic space for those with emotional troubles.F
With an array of studies indicating that sadness plays a constructive and significant role in human affairs, what are we to make of the current fervour surrounding the pursuit of happiness? Are we being led toward an illusion by false prophets of positivity? According to Steven Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, we are. He believes we need to set aside the idea of happiness altogether, or at least any notion of `pursuing` it. ` What people mean by happiness is feeling good,' Hayes says. `[But] there are many ways to feel good. And many of the ways we feel good actually limit the possibilities for living the way we want to live our lives.` What is more important than experiencing the transient flush of happy feelings, he suggests, is moving through life in accordance with our core values. This expanded notion of good living does not limit itself to happiness, but embraces sadness, and at times, fear, anger and suffering too.